The uninformed choice of a college major: trouble ahead
It’s second only to choosing a spouse — would you marry a stranger?
The second most consequential decision of your life — after romantic partners — is choosing a college major. It dictates your future jobs and income, the sorts of people you will meet, and, to a large degree, whether life will be an economic grind or a joyous adventure of expanding opportunities.
And yet, even with soaring college costs, many students and their families make this major life decision having done little or no research. “They don’t know average earnings, they don’t know about jobs,” says economist Matthew Wiswall, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-authored an enormous review study of research and ideas on college majors, which is essentially a crash course in how to choose a major and why.
Start early. Like as a tween.
“Education is a sequential decision,” says Wiswall’s co-author, Basit Zafar, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan. “Certain choices in middle school or high school are going to determine your path.” If you don’t take calculus in high school, all those high-paying STEM opportunities are moot.
Research long-term outcomes. A lot.
At this early age, it’ll be helpful if parents can connect, in the young mind, the future workplace to a topic of study. Yes, schooling to get a job. But what job? My colleague, Natasha Frost, has compiled a guide to the joint parent-student process of discovering occupations. How much money does a typical graduate earn, five or fifteen years after college? What percentage pursue graduate degrees, and in what fields? What sorts of jobs are available to graduates? Are those jobs plentiful, such as in engineering, or very limited, such as in English, history and fine arts? What lifestyles go along with those jobs?
It’s complicated. “I mean, I’m a professional and it’s hard to interpret the data,” jokes Wiswall, only half kidding. Factors like ability, personal preference and family background all come into play. Research as much as you can, and know that in experiments where students are provided information about majors, their education choices shift.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (look under data tools and ROI) has a handy calculator for the life-long value of attending a particular college. The center also has a data tool on the value of college majors. And there’s tons more to read there. I’d bookmark it.
Research majors. A lot.
“Students should take it very seriously and learn as much as they can. There’s lots to know about degrees,” Wiswall says. Focus on college experience: How difficult is this major? What are average grades? (STEM fields tend to have lower grades.) What percent of students are female or diverse? Do class times allow for afternoon sports or extracurriculars? Does the school charge different tuition rates based on major? Your goal is to make an informed decision. CollegeScorecard.ed.gov, the U.S. Department of Education’s data site, is a good resource.
Want to be rich? Follow the money.
“STEM and business majors earn much more than humanities majors do,” Wiswall says. This remains true even when controlling for traits like ability. As a rule of thumb, fields with surprisingly high wages often need more qualified people. Engineering majors earn 60% more than education majors; economics majors also do very well. Fine arts, English and history majors earn less.
And the earnings gaps only grow over time: Humanities majors earn less in their 20s, with substantially lower lifetime incomes by the time they reach their 60s and 70s. “Majoring in art history or English is totally fine if students know what they’re getting into. Know the consequences of your choices,” Wiswall.
Be cognizant of post-grad financial responsibilities.
Engineering is the current hot major for students who want immediate high-income employability after (and sometimes before) graduation; business degrees produce a quick marketplace return with many options. “If you don’t have support from your parents, you might need something that leads to an immediate job,” Wiswall says. No, a physics or mathematics career is not the ticket to a swift payday. Expect to be earning almost nothing through grad school.
Know who will be sitting at the next desk.
Socioeconomic and race differences between majors are very common, and researchers don’t yet fully understand them. For example, students whose parents do not have college degrees are much more likely to specialize in business; a typical fine arts major is much more likely to have wealthier parents, and a decade to experiment with different programs and internships; physics majors have, on average, highly educated parents.
It’s 100% fine to change majors. Really.
“One of the pros of the American system is that you’re allowed to explore and take different courses and switch,” says Wiswall, who encourages changing majors as needed, even if it lengthens time in school. “That’s totally fine, because it has big implications later in life. So if it takes you an extra year to get through school, but you find a field that really fits you better, that’s a good thing.”
He speculates that students enter college not always knowing what they’re good at and enjoy, and figure it out through taking different courses. He himself began a Ph.D. in history, and switched to economics. “It was a better fit for me. I think it’s super important. Anything that can help people find what they’re best at end up in the right fields is a good thing.”
Follow your bliss.
Yep. Both Wiswall and Zafar return to this advice. Studies show that students who take post-graduate jobs primarily to pay off school debt are less fulfilled. “Everyone should follow their passion and interests,” Zafar says.